Ah, December! The darkest month of the year, when we lose daylight at the depressing rate of more than two minutes per day, until the winter solstice marks the turning point. Humans crave light at this dark time, and electricity allows us to indulge this craving shamelessly. No wonder the ancients turned the solstice into a weeks-long festival of lights.
Let’s see how much you know about this very important astronomical event. The winter solstice appears on calendars and ephemerides as an exact date and time (to the minute) that changes every year. Do you know how the time is determined? Is it actually the shortest day of the year? Is it actually the first day of winter?
The answers, surprisingly, are no and no. The shortest day of the year in fact occurs several days before the official date of the solstice. The official date and time instead mark the movement of the sun out of Sagittarius and into Capricorn. And you thought astrology was irrelevant!
As for its being the first day of winter, that’s a lot of hooey. I have no idea who decided winter “begins” in late December, but it’s nonsense. The meteorologists sensibly account December first as the beginning of the winter season. The ancient Celts, also sensibly, held that winter begins midway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, at the holiday they called Samhain (pronounced sowan) and we know as Halloween, which was also their New Year’s Eve. Interesting that we now switch from daylight saving to standard time at the end of October, proving perhaps that old ideas don’t die, they just get repurposed.
In the Celtic calendar, all the seasons begin midway between an equinox and a solstice, and each has its holiday. Spring starts at the beginning of February, a festival once called Imbolc and now “celebrated,” much corrupted, as Groundhog Day. Summer begins with Beltane, now called May Day, and autumn begins in early August at a holiday called Lammas or Lughnasa. Sadly, this occasion is no longer remembered on American shores, though I believe it is still observed in Ireland. This older calendar is why the winter solstice is known to us confusingly as both the first day of winter and the time of the midwinter festival.
In Scandinavia, which experiences the most profound winter darkness on the European continent, and in the countries where the Vikings and Norsemen carried their traditions, including the British Isles, the weeks leading up to and following the winter solstice were known as Yule. When I looked up Yule in my dictionary, however, I was dismayed to see it defined only as “the feast of the nativity of Jesus Christ.” I’m sorry, but it is not. The derivation admits that the word is the Old Norse name for a pagan midwinter festival. Yes, exactly. That festival was celebrated for thousands of years before the Christians coopted it, and I object to its total omission from the definition. I have the same objection when I encounter the saying that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Again, no offense intended, but he is not, at least, not originally and not solely. Celebration of the season predates Jesus by millennia.
Americans wish each other a Merry Christmas; in England it’s a Happy Christmas. But 2,000 years into the Christian era, the Swedes still greet their fellows with Good Yule (God Jul), and in France, it’s Joyous Noël (Joyeux Noël). Merriam-Webster’s defines noël as meaning Christmas or carol, says it’s derived from the Latin natalis, meaning birth, and cites its earliest documented use as 1811, in a book of old French songs. I find that almost impossible to believe. The Oxford English Dictionary defines noël simply as a song, with the same first-citation date, but refers the reader to nowel. This word it defines as a joyous shout, akin to hurray or hallelujah, with a 14th-century citation from Chaucer, although it also traces the origin back to the Latin natalis. Again, I’m not buying it. The French had no French word for Christmas before the 19th century and then “chose” a word that means song? Seems more than a little odd to me. That’s like the English wishing everyone a Happy Carol.
Nowel began life as a joyful cry and evolved to mean a joyful song sung at a joyful holiday. What are the chances that Noël, and the festival to which it refers, is actually as old in western Europe as Yule is to the north? Excellent, in my opinion. For that matter, what are the chances that Noël is derived from the ancient word Yule brought to French territory by the Norsemen who settled in Normandy? It’s less of a stretch from Yule to Noël than it is from natalis to Noël, that’s for sure. Etymologists, consider this a challenge!
Cultures that experience the change of seasons generally have a long festival at midwinter, a festival of lights to chase back the darkness and call upon the sun to return. The Chinese have the Festival of the Lanterns. Even as far south as the Mediterranean, there is Hanukkah, an eight-day event. The Romans had the Saturnalia in mid-December, during which gifts were exchanged. Saturn was the god of harvests; consider the symbolism of holding his festival months after harvest is complete and months before spring planting will begin, when the earth seems barren. Also consider that saturnalia has come to mean a drunken orgy, and we can guess that the Romans celebrated rather lustily, making the beast with two backs to encourage the land to be fruitful once more, a primitive form of magick.
In a festival of lights, people light up the dreary darkness, whether with pre-electricity candles and Yule logs and firecrackers or with modern icicle lights and glittery tinsel and rainbow LEDs. Here in the United States, we string lights on everything from trees to porch columns to fences and place electric candles in our windows like beacons of hope. We bring evergreens into our homes as a symbol that life will be renewed, that the deadness of winter cannot defeat the vitality hidden within soil and branch and seed.
The colors of the season are obvious choices. Evergreens supply the only spots of living color in the white and brown and gray monotony of the bleak winter landscape, and green’s opposite is the cheery and warming red that can lift our spirits and gladden our hearts. Nature herself loves this combination, exemplified by holly’s shiny green leaves and bright red berries. People have been decorating their homes at midwinter with living green branches and garlands of aromatic pine and cedar and sprigs of white-berried mistletoe (sacred to the Druids) for almost as long as homes have existed, and the Christmas tree is just the most recent expression of that impulse.
Pagan or Christian, the midwinter festival celebrates coming out of the darkness and the rebirth of the world. You don’t have to be a Christian to celebrate Yule with a joyful song, just a human who craves the return of the sun and its light and warmth. A pagan, after all, is simply one who dwells in the country, close to Nature and sensitive to her rhythms and moods and mysteries.
In March I’ll post a piece about the origins of Easter, another pagan holiday coopted by the Christians. Watch for it!
This is article 19 in a continuing series. © 2011 Christine C. Janson